David Coates

Half-forgotten or Totally Forgotten – Poverty in America?


            Successful progressive politics require widespread popular support for progressive programs, and there is no way in which that support can be created without those programs being fully and regularly explained. But on so many important issues, that is simply not happening right now. True, the scale of unemployment[1] is periodically decried by politicians on both sides of the aisle, but normally only when the monthly jobs figures first appear. The housing burdens created by the foreclosure crisis are now treated by them as largely a thing of the past;[2] and when “the problem of debt” is discussed in Washington DC, it is invariably federal debt which is prioritized, not consumer debt and only occasionally student debt.[3] That’s normally in July. And poverty? The plight of the American poor would appear to be entirely off the political radar screen in today’s Washington. It is as though the American poor do not exist; or if they do, that nobody else cares.

            The political sins being committed here are those both of commission and omission – commission by the Republicans, omission by the Democrats. Earlier this month, a majority of House Republicans voted for the new farm bill even though it would cut food stamps for the poor by more than $20 billion over a decade.[4] The Tea Party Republicans who opposed the bill did so because it subsidized farmers too generously, not because it helped the poor too little. And those same Republicans continue to vote endlessly to block the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act, urging fellow Republicans at the state level as they do so not to extend Medicaid as the Act allows. We even have the bizarre spectacle of Republican Senators (Jeff Sessions[5] and Ted Cruz[6] in particular) opposing comprehensive immigration reform because of its adverse impact on the wages and job prospects of low-paid native-born workers. This, from a party that steadfastly opposes any increase in the minimum wage[7] or any rolling back of right-to-work legislation – legislation that weakens the capacity of trade unions to effectively win better wages and conditions of work for low-paid Americans, native-born or otherwise.[8]

            All this should (and indeed does) leave a yawning political gap into which the Democratic Party should actively charge; and in the party’s defense, it should be noted that many of its less well-known legislators and activists do precisely that. But what about its national leadership: when did the Obama White House last speak out about the obscenity of poverty and income inequality in the contemporary United States, let alone when did it make anti-poverty policies a top priority? Barack Obama the candidate once criticized John McCain for briefly suspending his presidential campaign to address the 2008 financial crisis, arguing that a president needs to be able to multi-task. Well, this president isn’t multi-tasking now – the Administration’s domestic focus is all on immigration reform and (belatedly) climate change. Surrounded by cabinet members many of whom are extremely rich themselves, even a White House led by a former community organizer now seems to be deaf to the voice and concerns of the American poor. Deaf and silent: and silence in politics can do as much damage as noise can.

            We do need more noise on the plight of those of our fellow citizens struggling on low incomes or on no incomes at all. Why? Because their current plight is morally outrageous.

            I have made similar arguments about the need to prioritize anti-poverty programs on several previous occasions, hoping each time not to have to make them again.[9] But sadly they are still needed. Poverty levels remain unacceptably high in contemporary America; and income inequality, which is still rising,[10] is already at a level unprecedented in recent times. One American in seven currently lives in poverty, and not simply because of unemployment – high and persistent as that currently is. Low wages for those fortunate enough to have work also keep the average family income for the bottom 75 percent of the U.S. population at or on the edge of poverty.[11]  The typical Walmart employee earning $8.81 an hour, for example, grosses an annual income of less than $16,000, well below the poverty level for a family of three – and Walmart is currently America’s largest employer. There are at least 1.65 million households in this country surviving on less than $2 a day – on subsistence-level incomes, that is, which we normally associate with third world economies far from our shores[12] – and nearly a quarter of the Americans recently polled by the Pew Research Center “said they had trouble putting food on the table over the past year.”[13] African-American and Hispanic-American workers and households figure disproportionately highly in all these dour statistics, in spite of the advances made since the 1960s in the political rights of minority populations in the United States.[14] America currently has more than 46 million of its citizens living in poverty, and too many of those citizens are black or brown.[15]

That $20.5 billion proposed cut in food stamp funding in the House farm bill would directly impact those 46 million Americans, 49 percent of whom happen to be children.[16] Estimates suggest that the bill, if passed, would eliminate “food assistance to nearly 2 million low-income people, most of them senior citizens or working families with children.”[17] And yet, as Leo Gerard told readers of The Huffington Post only last week, one of the farm bill’s most vociferous advocates in the House – Congressman Stephen Fincher (R-Tennessee) – took in a reported $3.5 million in federal farm subsidies from 199-2012 but still voted to cut food stamps on the grounds that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”[18]  We don’t just have excessive poverty in this country. We also have an excessive sense of self-righteousness amongst sections of the super-rich. It really is time to call those people out for the hypocrites and parasites that they actually are. To a far greater degree than is commonly recognized the poor don’t create their own poverty. They (and particularly their children[19]) simply live out a life of poverty created for them by distributional rules (on compensation packages, taxation, property rights and inheritance) that disproportionately favor the rich. As we wrote earlier, in Answering Back, when considering the issue of urban poverty:

Conservative commentators roll into the ghetto, see individuals acting quite rationally within the parameters of what is possible there, and then condemn those individuals for not doing what they could have done had the parameters been wider. They see the last act in the drama but never the prologue. Margaret Thatcher’s great ally, Norman Tebbit, used to tell the UK poor to “get on their bikes and go find work”, as his father had before him. But when jobs are scarce, you have to peddle further. If you are already trapped in urban poverty, the incline up which you have to cycle is steeper than in the suburban flat-lands. If the world around you is racist, cycling alone can be dangerous if you are black. If it is sexist, women cyclists beware! The level playing field on which all of us are supposed to act with responsibility is just not there in a world scarred by inequalities of class, race and gender that have built up over the generations. So advocate peddling by all means. Personal responsibility is the necessary last moment. We can all agree on that. But if the Republican audience genuinely wants the American social play to have the happy ending they desire, they will have to do something too about the inequalities and inadequacies that currently characterize the stage-set on which it is being performed. If they do not work on the positions that create poverty, and focus instead only on the individuals currently occupying them, all that can happen is that some of those individuals will escape to affluence, but the positions of the poor will still be there, to be filled by the next generation of the under-resourced. People will rotate in and out of poverty, but poverty itself will remain.[20]

 Other industrial economies flourish rather better than we do with distributions of income far more egalitarian that ours:[21] so there is nothing inevitable (or economically superior) in current American levels of income and wealth inequality. Both types of inequality are products of choice – a choice which in our case is heavily socially divisive[22] as well as – in moral terms – fundamentally wrong.[23]

On July 4th, we will celebrate the eighteenth century birth of a new nation, conceived in liberty and committed to justice for all. But there can be no genuine liberty for those without the economic and social capacity to enjoy it. The negative freedoms we celebrate this week have to be joined with positive freedoms if they are to be a lived reality for all of us.[24] As President Lyndon Johnson said when launching the war on poverty, “the man who is hungry, who cannot find work or educate his children, who is bowed by want, is not fully free.”[25] That war on poverty did not fail because poverty won. It failed because a Republican president stopped fighting it. We need to start fighting poverty again, and fighting it big time.[26]

In the absence of an effective anti-poverty strategy led by a pro-active Democratic White House, with income inequality as entrenched as it now is in America, any claim for successful change made by Barack Obama must ultimately ring hollow.  So will the White House please wake up, stir itself out of its self-adopted economic policy inertia, and start addressing again the real problems faced by millions of real Americans. The Administration needs to start to do that – it needs to start addressing the issue of poverty – because we can be sure that the Republicans will not do anything of the kind; and because we can also be sure that, unless somebody does tackle this entirely socially-created problem, the poor will indeed always be with us, to our abiding shame.[27] The arguments,[28] and the programs,[29] to end poverty are readily available. What tragically seems still to be missing is the political will to implement them. It is time for the White House to find some of that political will, as its contribution to electoral victory for Democrats in 2014.


[4] Ron Nixon, “House Rejects Farm Bill as Food Stamp Cuts Prove Decisive,” The New York Times, June 20, 2013: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/us/politics/house-defeats-a-farm-bill-with-big-food-stamp-cuts.html

[5] Ezra Klein, “It’s almost as if Jeff Sessions’ opposition to immigration reform isn’t about the poor at all,” The Washington Post, June 19, 2013: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/06/19/its-almost-as-if-jeff-sessions-opposition-to-immigration-reform-isnt-about-the-poor-at-all/

[6] Glenn Kessler, “Ted Cruz’s errant tweet that employers would have a ‘huge incentive’ to hire newly legalized workers,’ posted on his The Fact Checker, June 21, 2013: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker


[7] David Cooper and Doug Hall, Raising the Federal Minimum Wage to $10.10 Would Give Working Families, and the Overall Economy, a Much-Needed Boost, Washington DC: Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper #357, March 13, 2013: available at http://www.epi.org/publication/bp357-federal-minimum-wage-increase/

[8] Peter Dreier, Americans Deserve a Big Raise – Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, posted on The Huffington Post, June 25, 2013: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-dreier/fair-labor-standards-act_b_3497517.html

[10] Lawrence Mishel and Natalie Sabadish, CEO Pay in 2012 Was Extraordinarily High Relative To Typical Workers And Other High Earners, Washington DC: Economic Policy Institute Issue Brief #367, June 26, 2013: available at http://www.epi.org/publication/ceo-pay-2012-extraordinarily-high/

[11] Paul Buchheit, The Real Numbers – Half of America in poverty – and It’s Creeping toward 75%, posted on Alternet.org, May 26, 2013: available at http://www.alternet.org/economy/real-numbers-half-america-poverty-and-its-creeping-toward-75-0

[12] Dylan Matthews, “Millions of Americans live in extreme poverty. Here’s how they get by,” The Washington Post, May 13, 2013: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/05/13/millions-of-americans-live-in-extreme-poverty-heres-how-they-get-by/

[13] Jillian Berman, This One Chart Should Shame The U.S. Into Solving Its Hunger Crisis, posted on The Huffington Post, May 28, 2013: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/28/americas-hungry_n_3345749.html


[14] Algernon Austin, The Unfinished March: An Overview, Washington DC: The Economic Policy Institute, June 18, 2013: available at http://www.epi.org/publication/unfinished-march-overview/

[16] Damien Paletta and Caroline Potter, “Use of Food Stamps Swells Even as Economy Improves,” The Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2013: available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323699704578328601204933288.html

[17] E.J. Dionne, ‘Boehner’s House implodes over flawed farm bill,” The Washington Post, June 23, 2013: available at http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-06-23/opinions/40152213_1_farm-bill-food-stamp-program-supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program

[18] Leo Gerard, America Feeds the Rich, posted on The Huffington Post, June 17, 2013: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/leo-w-gerard/america-feeds-the-rich_b_3450749.html


[19] Simon Johnson, Austerity’s Children, posted on Project Syndicate, March 26, 2013: available at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-unfair-burden-of-fiscal-adjustment-by-simon-johnson

[20] David Coates, Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments. New York: Continuum Books, 2010, pp. 67-8: available at http://www.amazon.com/Answering-Back-Responses-Conservative-Arguments/dp/1441126937

[21] Jared Bernstein, Inequality and Mobility, Again, posted on The Huffington Post, June 26, 2013: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jared-bernstein/inequality-and-mobility_b_3505904.html


[22] Adam Hudson, The Astonishing Collapse of Black and Latino Household Wealth, posted on Alternet.org, June 3, 2013: available at http://www.alternet.org/economy/black-and-latino-household-wealth-has-collapsed


[23] On this, see Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments., op. cit. pp. 57-84: available at http://www.amazon.com/Answering-Back-Responses-Conservative-Arguments/dp/1441126937

[24] Cited in David Coates, Making the Progressive Case: Towards a Stronger U.S. Economy. New York: Continuum Books, 2011, pp. 54-5: available at http://www.amazon.com/Making-Progressive-Case-Towards-Stronger/dp/1441186506

[25] Ibid, p. 55

[26] NPR Staff,  How America’s Losing The War On Poverty, NPR.org, October 29, 2012: available at http://www.npr.org/2012/08/04/158141728/how-americas-losing-the-war-on-poverty

[27] Paul Buchheit, Six Shameful Facts About Hunger, posted on NationofChange, June 24, 2013: available at http://truth-out.org/buzzflash/commentary/item/18046-six-shameful-facts-about-hunger

[28] Sean McElwee, 6 Ways to Debate a One Percenter About Inequality, posted on The Huffington Post, June 26, 2013: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sean-mcelwee/a-citizens-guide-to-debat_b_3498785.html


[29]See David Coates, Making the Progressive Case: Towards a Stronger U.S. Economy. op. cit.: available at http://www.amazon.com/Making-Progressive-Case-Towards-Stronger/dp/1441186506

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David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

One Response to “Half-forgotten or Totally Forgotten – Poverty in America?”

  1. Diane Chotikul says:

    Dear Mr. Coates:

    This article is so accurate and excellent–thank you! This should be required reading for every American citizen, and especially for our elected officials. Please make sure to send a copy to President Obama, if you have not already done so. This issue is the real job 1 in America that needs immediate and intense attention and work! Please keep speaking truth to power!!

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